Red Holzman -- the Marco Polo of pro basketball
Los Angeles — Coach Red Holzman of the New York Knicks, who still says he will watch any movie that has a horse in it, has probably traveled more miles than Marco Polo during his 28-year association with professional basketball.
In fact, the only two world championships the Knicks have ever won (1969-70 and 1972-73) were Holzman productions. Among past and present NBA coaches, only Red Auerbach has more career victories.
Basically Holzman is a conservative man who, once he's found something that works well for him, whether it applies to basketball, business or life in general, isn't apt to change. Yet if he wasn't also flexible, he wouldn't still be able to communicate with players 30 years his junior making twice his salary.
The other night Red said something in the visitors' dressing room at the Los Angeles Forum that I think is worth repeating. Asked if he could think of anything that might make pro basketball more attractive to the fans, Holzman replied:
"Well, I think you have to be awfully careful when you talk about rule changes, because this is a wonderful game just the way it is. But because of the size and superior speed of today's players, it's possible that some thought should be given to increasing the width of the court from 50 to 54 or maybe even 56 feet.
"What this would accomplish is to open up the game some more for the players, create additional excitement for the fans, and maybe give the referees a better look at what is going on before they have to make their calls. But this is not something I've spent a lot of time thinking about."
One thing Red is not in favor of for pro basketball are any kind of zone defenses.
"I think what you have to remember is that the National Basketball Association is in business for the fans, not the players or the coaches," Holzman explained. "Any time you go to a zone defense, even though the NBA has a 24-second shooting clock, you're always going to have people standing around holding the ball."
"Now no fan wants to watch that, no matter how well it's done," he explained. "It's much more fun to watch players fastbreak, pass the ball up court, hit the open man, or go one-on-one than it is to see five guys set up a zone under the basket.
"All you've got to do is think back to those great confrontations between Oscar Robertson and Jerry West; Bob Cousy and Slater Martin; or Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain to know what I'm talking about. People still remember those battles, but no fan is going to relate to a zone."
Holzman is one oldtimer who is quick to admit that today's players, generally speaking, are more talented and stronger than those who were NBA stars 20 years ago.
"If you know anything at all about basketball you can see the difference," Red said. "The reason you've got guys 6 ft. 9 in. playing in the backcourt now is because they can do everything that a little man can do, including dribble. Today you've got undergraduate hardship cases coming into this league and either starting or at least playing regularly. Years ago I don't think that kind of talent matured nearly as fast."
Questioned about frequent reports that today's players don't take defeat as hard as yesterday's heroes, Holzman replied:
"That's true. When I first started to coach in the pros, guys would come into the locker room after a tough loss and break up furniture or brood or act like there was no tomorrow. It was like they had committed a crime by losing.
"Now as a coach, I certainly don't want my players to take any defeat lightly. But when you're part of an 82-game schedule, you're playing five times in the next six nights, and you're rushing to catch an airplane, I don't think it's too smart to carry those kinds of feelings with you. In that respect, I think today's players handle things a lot better emotionally."
How has Red Holzman survived 28 years of living out of a suitcase, flying across time zones where you can change the hands on your watch but not the clock in your stomach, and hotel rooms that invariably look the same?
"The answer is so simple that you won't believe it," Red said. "I'm just one of those people who likes to travel, who likes the movies, and who reads a lot -- mostly best sellers that my married daughter picks out for me. But in the off season my wife and I never leave our house, unless it's to go to the beach."